“The Lord has done great things for us and we are glad indeed.”
Our Lord has indeed done great things for Mary, Martha and Lazarus. Let’s put today’s readings in context: just a few days before today’s story, Jesus answers the summons of Mary and Martha and arrives to find his other dear friend, Lazarus, dead for some days in his tomb. Jesus does a great thing for his dearest friends when he raises Lazarus from the dead. He does a not so great thing for himself though - for this huge miracle is the last straw for those leaders who hate him. Jesus is just getting too much attention. He has gone too far and now he has signed his death warrant.
Days later, he stops on his way to Jerusalem, on his way to his certain death, to stay with his closest friends for one last night of respite. He sits at the table with Mary, and poor Lazarus (who seems a bit dazed) while as usual, Martha cooks. Some of his followers are also there, at least Judas Iscariot is there. After they eat, something crazy happens.
Mary leaves the room and returns with a pint of pure nard. She breaks the neck of the vessel and pours the entire, extravagant amount of perfumed oil over the feet of Jesus. She then lets down her long hair and uses it to wipe his feet.
This gesture is both extravagant and a bit odd. The cost of this oil would be equivalent to a minimum wage worker spending $18,000. Mary’s gesture is so overwhelming that Judas just has to complain. Filled with self righteousness, he whines that the nard could have been sold and the money given to help the poor. It sure sounds like he’s seeking favor with Jesus here.
But Jesus slams him down: “Leave her alone! This oil was for my burial. You always have the poor with you, but you do not always have me.”
A version of this story is told in all four gospels so we know that the early followers of Jesus thought it was important and needed to be shared. Why do you think that was the case? What about this story strikes you as that important?
Well, these early followers of Jesus claimed that he was the messiah. ‘Messiah’ translates as “the anointed one.” That’s what is happening in this story, so close to his death: Mary is anointing him. I find it interesting that in Luke’s version, Mary is a sinner, a fallen woman seeking forgiveness. But when John tells the story, Mary is Jesus’ friend who is moved to perform this remarkable act.
Think of what she is doing in light of the mores of the day: first she lets down her hair in a room full of men despite the fact that the bible tells devout women to keep their hair covered at all times. It may have been OK to pour perfume on Jesus’ head but she pours perfume on Jesus’ feet, which was unheard of. Then, as an unmarried woman, she touches him, an unmarried man; also taboo. Then she wipes the perfume off of his feet with her long hair, a remarkably sensuous gesture.
That Jesus, the Messiah has his anointing performed by a woman is the most remarkable thing of all. Samuel anointed Saul by pouring a flask of oil on his head. Powerful popes or bishops, (all male) anoint kings and queens. Mary’s act was one of prophesy. She saw that Jesus was the Messiah and that his time of death and burial was near. So she anointed him.
After this scene, probably everyone in the room was speechless. So I have a little pity for Judas. He bumbles along doing the only thing he can think of, he shames Mary, he makes her loving gesture a shameful one, a profligate use of resources that could be used to help the poor. He kind of has a point, doesn’t he? But John tells us that Judas has been stealing from the common purse which makes it easier for us to side against him.
What of the point Judas makes? Wouldn’t it indeed be a better use of riches to sell the oil and help the poor? Jesus makes what seems to be a very cold response: “The poor will always be with us but you do not always have me.”
Jesus is very likely referring to Deuteronomy 15:11. “There will always be poor people in the land. Therefore I command you to be openhanded toward your fellow Israelites who are poor and needy in your land.”
Judas is doing a cost benefit analysis. There is scarcity in the land and extravagance is wasteful. Mary is coming from the opposite place. And that’s the thing about this story that I love. To Mary, there is great abundance in the land and her gesture is equal to the extravagance of God’s love and the love she feels for Jesus. She has personally witnessed that great love when her friend Jesus brings her brother back from the dead. She knows that there are no limits to the grace of God. She also knows that there is very little time left for Jesus so she pours out all of her love, all of her perfume, she pours out everything because times a wasting!
There will be great sorrow ahead as Jesus approaches his death on the cross but that suffering will turn to great joy as he brings all of us to new life. Our psalm today captures this; “Those who sowed with tears will reap with songs of joy. Those who go out weeping, carrying the seed, will come again with joy, shouldering their sheaves.”
Paul puts things into perspective when he writes; “I have suffered the loss of all things, and I regard them as rubbish, in order that I may gain Christ and be found in him.”
So poor Judas was complaining about Mary. He seems to grow more miserable as we approach the Passion of our Lord.
I want to tell you a story about another complainer:
A man walks into a monastery and says “I want to be a monk.” The abbot replies “Great! But you must realize we are only allowed to talk once every ten years.” The man replies “Fine.” Ten years go by and the man goes into the abbot’s office. The abbot asks, “Well, my son what have you to say. The man replies “Bed’s hard.” The abbot remarks, “Is that it?” The man says, “Yes”. Another ten years go by and the man goes into the abbot’s office and says, “Food stinks!” The abbot asks, “Is that it?” And the man says “Yes.” Another ten years goes by and the man goes into the abbot’s office and says “Water’s cold. I quit!” And the abbot replies, “Figures! You’ve been complaining ever since you got here!”
So let’s not complain about what we lack. Like Mary, let us instead glory in the extravagant abundance of God’s love. Then let us share that love everywhere and in every way we can!